JOHANNESBURG - Gaining in confidence with every series, India's in-form young batsmen are set to be put through their sternest test this season when the team takes on the mighty South Africa in a three-match ODI series starting Thursday.
It is an ODI contest with context but that has got nothing to do with the political intrigue that led to this tour being shortened. Nor is it just another three-match series between the number one and number five ranked sides. This affair has a certain context, all of it pertaining to what happens within the boundary ropes. For Team India, it will be an exercise to reaffirm faith in their young batsmen. This is the same bunch that has been busy lighting up cricket grounds with some breathtaking stroke-play. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, each have scored more than thousand runs in ODIs played this calendar year, each of them averaging over fifty.
There can be two ways to look at this statistic. First, they have scored runs in India, England, West Indies and Zimbabwe, in different conditions. Their confidence is sky-high at the moment and in their respective purple patches, all they can think of is playing the next match and batting on.
Their great run has meant that the Indian batting has started to look top-heavy, and this is the second point, albeit a bit worrisome. In 31 matches this year, Suresh Raina averages only 36. In 21 matches, Yuvraj Singh has scored at only 21.23. In the last nine matches (seven completed innings each) against Australia and West Indies, they have fared worse -- Raina has scored at 22.42 and Yuvraj at 19.66, facing the same bowling as Dhawan, Sharma and Kohli, on the same pitches.
Along with the inform top-order and below Yuvraj and Raina, is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who too has maintained his touch this year. In 23 matches, he averages 66.90. Of course, the small print is that he has been not out eight times. But his conversion rate after getting a start has been good, with four fifties and a hundred.
It highlights that hole of poor form in the middle of the batting order, which South Africa will look to exploit. Particularly, when Team India is likely to play only six front-line batsmen.
This will be a test unlike any other in the 11 months gone by, on pitches which will afford more bounce and are likely to cater to the hosts' traditional strength -- pace.
The hosts will be eager to unleash Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis at the first available opportunity. Both Steyn and Kallis have been included in the squad for this three-match series, after sitting out the third (and last) ODI against Pakistan. South Africa lost that three-match rubber, a first loss against Pakistan at home. Similarly, India too have never won a bilateral ODI series in South Africa and the Men in Blue will want to take heart from their archrivals' success.
For the Proteas, going up against the top-ranked ODI side, this is a chance to ascertain their own plans in this format after some patchy display in the past year. In fact, South Africa have only beaten Pakistan in two bilateral series (out of three against this opposition) in 2013, failing to impress in the Champions Trophy and losing to New Zealand and Sri Lanka elsewhere.
After Gary Kirsten stepped down as coach, and AB de Villiers' none too impressive captaincy run so far, the team is still trying to find its feet under current coach Russell Domingo. His biggest aim will be to find a cure for this team's pain-point -- failure to handle pressure and close out games. It is a fact that they have just one win in their last eight games while chasing.
While Indian batsmen versus South African bowlers will prove to be the key contest, the Indian bowlers too have a chance to get onto the stage. For them, it is a chance to regain confidence lost in the last couple months. Playing on wickets which afforded no life and hampered by the new fielding rules that were heavily stacked against them, these bowlers took a beating like never before.
Now, with conditions affording a better balance between bat and ball, they can hope to tide over their shortcomings and put on a better display. As such, picking the right combination will be vital for both sides. For South Africa, Kallis' presence has always been a boon. Yet, with his advanced years now, they are beginning to question his utility to the side, with the 2015 World Cup starting to appear in the distant horizon. This series could be an exercise in that direction. India too will be on a similar quest.
Through the year, irrespective of the format, Dhoni has professed playing five full-time bowlers. It was a necessity on feather-beds at home. It remains to be seen whether it will prove to be a luxury in relatively more bowler-friendly conditions, forcing him to use a sixth batsman going forward. Also, how long before the team management starts wondering about the form of Raina and Yuvraj, and the possibility of blooding in Ambati Rayudu or Ajinkya Rahane.
That's the import of this short series; a few questions to be asked and the answers need to start coming in. However, there is a rider attached. Every evening, for the past three weeks or so, rain regularly visits Johannesburg. A thunder-shower could threaten tomorrow's game, and further delay those answers.
INDIA: MS Dhoni (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammad Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Amit Mishra, Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkya Rahane.
SOUTH AFRICA: AB de Villiers (capt), Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir, Jacques Kallis, Ryan McLaren, David Miller, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.